This cartoon showcases not only parent denial, but also teacher intransigence. Lets hope our conferences this week are more productive.
Tag Archives: Leadership
Those of us sucker-punched with snow this weekend can take heart that the temperature has returned to a semblance of normal.
New Yorkers two centuries ago were nowhere near as lucky.
The year 1816 would be forever remembered by many names: The Poverty Year, Eighteen Hundred and Froze to Death, and most famously The Year without a Summer. It would be most known as the time when a perfect storm of low temperatures, a lull in solar activity and a supercolossal volcanic eruption caused one of the most tragic epidemics of famine and destruction in Western history.
Those events of two centuries past still haunt us today—especially when human beings are altering the atmosphere more so than ever before.
In April of 1815, Mount Tambora, on the island of Sumbawa in present-day Indonesia, erupted for approximately ten days. The explosion measured a 7, “or “supercolossal” on the Volcanic Explosivity Index—an intensity only seen about once in a millennium. Massive volumes of volcanic ash and dust spewed into the upper atmosphere.
It could not have happened at a worse time.
The Tambora eruption aligned perfectly with a lull in solar activity known as the Dalton Minimum. During this lull, temperatures around the world (already low due to Little Ice Age) further dropped from about 1790 and 1830. Furthermore, other large eruptions between 1812 and 1814 added even more volcanic material to the air, creating a further temperature drop known as a “volcanic winter.”
The atmospheric disturbance produced brown and red snows in Central and Southern Europe. The erratic, freezing summer temperatures led to crop failures, famine, epidemics and food riots from Shanghai to London.
Yet the widest social and cultural effects were in the northeastern United States.
In May of 1816, frost killed off the newly planted crops in New England, and the cold snap would grip the region by June. Snow—often of a foot or more—was reported from Quebec City to Pennsylvania between June and August. Ice floes could be seen as far south as the lower Susquehenna River. Temperatures would rise to normal summer temperatures and drop to below freezing within hours. In the winter of 1817, temperatures dropped to -26°F in New York, freezing the upper New York Bay solid.
With the destruction of the New England harvest, grain prices rose dramatically. Oats, for example, went from $0.12 a bushel to $0.92 a bushel in one season. Corn, wheat and other grains also spiked in price, creating national food shortages, hoarding and price speculation.
The most dramatic effect, however, was the actions of the survivors of 1816.
Although the western expansion of the United States was in full swing even twenty years before, the 1816 disturbances began a mass exodus from New England. Thousands of now-destitute farm families picked up sticks and moved west, to upstate New York and the Northwest Territory, today the Upper Midwest of the country. Vermont alone dropped almost half its population after 1816.
Two survivors of the Year without a Summer still affect us today. One of the families that left Vermont in 1816 were the Smiths. They moved from Sharon, Vermont to Palmyra, New York, where their son, Joseph, would engage in a series of events that would eventually lead to his founding of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.
The other is definitely more apropos to today’s holiday. A group of friends had to spend their summer vacation in Switzerland indoors due to the bad weather. To pass the time, they started a contest to see who could write the scariest story. The host, the great poet Lord Byron, wrote a poem aptly titled Darkness. Another, John William Polidori wrote The Vampyre.
Yet the clear winner of this contest, at least in the modern age, was a woman named Mary Shelley, who decided to pen a ditty with the second title of The Modern Prometheus. You know it better as Frankenstein.
It is altogether fitting that we end with this story of freakish science gone horribly wrong. If 1816 came about due to natural phenomena, then can we expect something similar with our filthy mitts in the atmosphere?
Will our meddling with the environment cause the next Year without a Summer?
Time will tell.
I share my birthday with a rather prophetic event in American history.
On December 5, 1933, the 21st Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified. With Utah’s ratification vote, the failed social experiment known as Prohibition was killed, and Americans could once again belly up to the bar free of prosecution.
Yet the effects of that 13 year era still linger, both in our national consciousness and our collective imagination. Film and television have done much to pump up the mystique.
Yesterday, two programs dealt with Prohibition—one a multi-layered morality play, the other a social-science documentary. You can guess which is which by the networks they were on: few fact-based documentaries of glacial speed exist on Home Box Office. On the other hand, PBS rarely has a massive volume of exposed breasts and gunplay.
While Boardwalk Empire and Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s Prohibition may seem altogether different, in fact they approach the Noble Experiment in two important directions—and one cannot exist without the other.
The Ken Burns documentary, a format familiar to many, lays out the larger issues of the era and the main characters involved in a familiar maudlin motif. In the first episode, alcohol takes its place as a prominent American beverage since the colonial period—only reaching crisis mode as distilled spirits become the drink of choice in saloons during the mid 19th century. The negative effects of drinking (the violence, indolence, illness, etc.) touched women and children the worst, especially at a time when their voice was largely silenced.
The groups formed to combat the spread of “Demon rum”—the Prohibition Party, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and the Anti-Saloon League—grew out of a larger social reform movement for abolition, workplace reform, and especially womens’ suffrage. It further split Americans along regional, class and ethnic lines: Protestants against Catholics, Episcopalians and German Lutherans, Native-born against immigrants, rural versus urban.
Yet where the documentary works to establish the greater framework for the era, it is difficult for stills and voiceovers to create an ethos or soul.
Boardwalk Empire is now in its second season on HBO. A dramatic series based loosely on real events and characters in Atlantic City in the 1920s, the program follows county treasurer and political boss Enoch “Nucky” Thompson (based on real-life boss “Nucky” Johnson) as he navigates his empire of graft and corruption—an empire grown richer thanks to Prohibition. Along the way, mobsters, mistresses, lackeys, and rival bosses struggle in the wake of Nucky’s machinations.
It is these struggles that are an important piece of the Prohibition puzzle—a piece, so far, absent from the PBS documentary.
Even in future episodes, as the rise and collapse of Prohibition is laid out in detail, Prohibition is no catch-all synopsis of the entirety of the dry days. The voiceovers, narration, grainy stills and grainier silent films of the era give much authenticity—much, but not all.
There is something in scripted drama that truly establishes an ethos, even if that ethos is almost a century in the past. Prohibition was more than just laws, agents, mobsters and speakeasies. At its heart, it was about ordinary Americans forced to make choices in a time of tremendous upheaval—a conflict well-founded in the HBO series.
Boardwalk Empire shows, in the daily conflicts of people high and low, the tough choices Americans were forced to make. Politicians like Nucky Thompson made choices that compromised morality, legality and even personal loyalty. Law enforcement officers, like sheriff Elias Thompson and Prohibition agent Nelson Van Alden, made choices that conflicted their sense of duty with their need for material security. Ordinary citizens, people who were once law-abiding, had to make the difficult (or often not so difficult) choice to break the law in order get even a little bit of comfort.
Like any era in history, Prohibition cannot be encapsulated in one source. Even a library of material could not encompass the necessary scholarship that defines a time in the past. In this case, however, a good basic grasp of the period requires two hands instead of one.
Documentaries provide solid material, underlying conflicts, primary sources—basically the big picture. Yet do not count out historical fiction entirely, especially if it’s done well.
Using both, you may get a more complete picture than you realize.
Enjoy them both…the next round’s on me.